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Author Interview: Ken Liu
2020-01-30 · by Natalia Theodoridou
Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Ken is the author of our February story, “How to Build a Dragon at the End of Time.”
This interview was conducted over e-mail in January of 2020.
sub-Q Magazine: I love the way “How to Build a Dragon at the End of Time” engages with our environmental theme by turning the idea of escapism on its head: here, the dragon, which one might see as escapist, becomes the means of our literal escape from a dying universe and the creation of a new one. But making the dragon is not a simple process. It requires building, assembling. Our materials demand reflection, balance, and thinking about the whole of what we are trying to create. It’s hands-on and, at the same time (as if there were any contradiction), poetic.
How do you escape?
Ken Liu: Thank you so much! It’s always such a joy to have one’s work understood deeply.
When I wrote this piece, I was trying to work through the idea of “environment” for myself. It seems that the way we think about the environment often falls into the trap of binary thinking: something is either part of “nature” or part of “artifice,” the environment or humanity, Other or Self.
Often, I use fiction as a way to have an argument with myself, to weigh ideas and see how they resonate against the heart.
So I set out to wrestle with the trap of binary thinking: the problem of how to “escape” the end of the universe presupposes that there is something doing the escaping and something to escape from—it’s how we frame so many disaster narratives. But as it turns out, “what’s in the dragon is also not in the dragon.” Building the dragon—an act of selection—necessarily also constructs the dragon’s environment—the negative selection. It’s a binary that collapses in on itself. We are also part of nature, the environment, the other-in-self-in-other; we cannot escape from ourselves; we have always been both problem and solution.
The result of my struggles to work through the infinitesimal patterns in the bamboo-of-existence was this piece of IF, which requires the player-reader to embrace balance by discernment, to eschew binary thinking by practicing it.
sub-Q Magazine: One of my favorite sentences in this piece was “Going forward requires pushing back.” Do you think that applies to other processes, in addition to dragon-building?
Ken Liu: I do. I think growth always requires examining where we come from and how we got here. To go somewhere new, to improve, to make progress—however one defines these concepts—require first that we accept the weight and gravity of our history.
sub-Q Magazine: Another standout for me was this: “It’s the fall that generates the force to uplift.” How does a writer fall?
Ken Liu: I think writing is about constantly failing.
Perfection is unattainable, and the stories that have moved me the most as a reader are not perfect stories: they are flawed creations that did something exceptionally well, with a sharp edge that cut through the veil of the quotidian to reveal something Beautiful and True underneath. But to hone such an edge necessitates the removal of material, the grinding away of aspects of experience that may be equally beautiful and true, but are distracting to the particular beauty and truth of this story. Every sharpened edge, when examined closely, is damaged, scarred, flawed.
Each beautiful story is thus also a monument to its own imperfection, and to dare to fall from the false promise of all-appealing grace is the most crucial act of every writer.
sub-Q Magazine: You have engaged with interactivity in literature before; for example, in “The Clockwork Soldier,” which is a non-interactive story that incorporates an interactive text adventure. What draws you to interactive fiction?
Ken Liu: A formative text for me is Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Stanley Fish pointed out a long time ago in Surprised by Sin, Milton’s epic can be understood as a kind of interactive text in which the reader is the most important character. The reader is constantly seduced by the text into advocating for the devil’s party, and the poem gradually builds power through these revelatory encounters that literally show the fallen nature of the reader.
After that, the interactivity of all narratives became a touchstone for my own aesthetic.
I think interactive fiction is still a largely underexplored medium. By fronting the agency of the player-reader, it has the potential to evoke powerful emotions that may be hard to achieve in less interactive narrative forms.
sub-Q Magazine: If you could make anything into a game, what would you choose?
Ken Liu: I’m very, very interested in VR and games, especially the potential for VR to allow us to experience the world viscerally from perspectives otherwise unavailable. Our proprioception can be extended and molded through VR in ways that have barely been explored. What would it be like to soar like an eagle? To dive like a whale? To slither through the grass like a snake? To race across the open plains on all fours like a cheetah? As full-body VR immersion becomes reality, I think there will be so many more interesting ways to play with our extended cognition and embodied minds.
sub-Q Magazine: Any recent games/interactive works that caught your attention?
Ken Liu: I loved GRIS, which I only got to play recently. I was especially amazed by how powerfully it evoked emotions by withholding and using color.
sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?
Ken Liu: My second collection of short fiction, THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES, is being published by Saga Press on February 25, 2020. I’m also in the last phases of editing the conclusion of the Dandelion Dynasty, my silkpunk epic fantasy series. This is shaping up to be a busy as well as productive year for writing, after years of struggling on one project. I’m so grateful to all the readers who have supported me on this journey.